Illustration of a bird perched on a scale of justice

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

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Who killed Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird?

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To Kill a Mockingbird is a famous novel that was written by Harper Lee. Its driving force is the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. Despite his innocence, Robinson is sentenced to jail. The novel takes place in the Deep South in the 1930s. Robinson had no real chance of beating the charge, even though Atticus Finch provided him with an excellent defense.

In chapter 24, we learn that Tom Robinson has died. He was shot in prison by a group of guards after attempting to escape. They said it happened during an exercise period. When Tom tried climbing the fence, the guards shot in the air to stop him. When that didn't work, they killed him. He died with seventeen bullet holes in his body. Lee leaves it up to our imagination as to whether this is what actually happened or if a group of white guards simply took the judicial process into their own hands.

In the literal sense, it's very clear who killed Tom Robinson—a group of prison guards. However, there are arguments to be made that it's not really the group of guards who killed Tom, nor was it the jury who sentenced him to prison. You could make the argument that it was Mayella Ewell who killed Tom. She's the one who made up the rape charge that he had no chance of ever beating. Or, you could even argue that it was her father, Bob Ewell, who killed Tom. He's the one who abused Mayella. He made her feel like she had no power, so she sought it by asking Tom to engage in a relationship with her.

I think all of these causes for Tom's death are partial truths. What really killed Tom is the society he lived in. It's doubtful he would have been sent to jail if he were a white man. If the guards staged his death, then they probably wouldn't have had the same desire to kill him if Tom were a white man. There are dozens of aspects of society that contributed to Tom's death. Although it was the guards who pulled the trigger, Tom Robinson was a victim of societal racism.

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In Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson becomes the unfortunate victim of racial injustice after he is wrongly convicted by an all-white jury of assaulting and raping Mayella Ewell. Following Tom's wrongful conviction, he is sent to Enfield Prison Farm, which is located seventy miles away in Chester County. Despite his conviction, Atticus has faith that they can win their appeal and looks forward to defending Tom again in a court of law. Tragically, Tom Robinson is not as optimistic as Atticus and has completely lost all faith in the justice system.

In chapter 24, Atticus interrupts Aunt Alexandra's missionary circle and calls his sister, Cal, and Miss Maudie into the kitchen to inform them of Tom's tragic death. Atticus says...

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that Tom attempted to escape from the Enfield Prison Farm during an exercise period and tried climbing the fence. The prison guards reacted by shooting Tom seventeen times while he was attempting to escape. After Atticus informs the ladies of Tom's death, he takes Cal with him to break the news to Helen Robinson. Inchapter 25, Scout reiterates Dill's story of Atticus informing Helen Robinson of her husband's death and elaborates on Mr. Underwood's editorial in The Maycomb Tribune regarding Tom's death. Mr. Underwood likens Tom's death to the "senseless slaughter of songbirds," which contributes to Tom's portrayal as a symbolic mockingbird in the story.

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Tom Robinson was shot while trying to escape from prison.

In a way, Bob Ewell killed Tom Robinson.  He was the one who accused him of raping Mayella.  Since Tom didn’t really do it, but the jury convicted him anyway, Tom Robinson’s death was partly Ewell’s fault.  It was also partly the jury’s fault. They convicted an innocent man.

Tom Robinson had already been in jail for a while when he was convicted, awaiting trial.  He believed that the trial was his one shot at justice.  When he was convicted, he was devastated.  Atticus tried to tell him that they could appeal the decision, but Tom didn’t believe they would succeed.  He felt that his life was over.

“They shot him,” said Atticus. “He was running. It was during their exercise period. They said he just broke into a blind raving charge at the fence and started climbing over. Right in front of them—” (Ch. 24)

With two good arms, Tom Robinson would have made it over the fence.  He was that strong.  However, he only had one good arm and he didn’t make it. The guards didn’t want to shoot him.  They shot some warning rounds into the air.  He didn’t listen.  He kept going, and they shot him.  It was what is called "suicide by cop."  He wanted to end his life on his terms, since he couldn’t control it.

Tom Robinson’s death was a tragedy.  Even Mr. Underwood, a blatant racist, thought that his death was a travesty.  He wrote about it in the paper.

Mr. Underwood didn’t talk about miscarriages of justice, he was writing so children could understand. Mr. Underwood simply figured it was a sin to kill cripples, be they standing, sitting, or escaping. He likened Tom’s death to the senseless slaughter of songbirds by hunters and children … (Ch. 25) 

Tom Robinson never hurt anyone.  He was a kind man, and he was trying to help Mayella because he felt sorry for her.  For his troubles he got a rape trial, and lost his liberty.  His death is a tragedy because he was a scapegoat in his society.  Like Mr. Underwood said, it was like killing a mockingbird.

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After Tom Robinson's conviction, he was sent to jail.  He had been sentenced to death for raping Mayella.  Atticus was appealing the conviction,

"We had such a good chance......I told him what I thought, but I couldn't in truth say that we had more than a good chance.  I guess Tom was tired of white men's chances and preferred to take his own." (pg 235-236)

Atticus tells Aunt Alexandra, Calpurnia,Miss Maudie, and Scout that while Tom was in jail, he decided to attempt an escape. He didn't see that he had much of a chance in a white man's justice system.   It was during an exercise period at the prison.  He suddenly, right in front of the guards, went running toward the fence and started climbing it. The guards called for him to stop, but he just kept climbing.

"They fired a few shots in the air, then to kill.  They got him just as he went over the fence.  They said that if he'd had two good arms he would have made it, he was that fast.  Seventeen bullet holes in him.  They didn't have to shoot him that much." (pg 235)

Aunt Alexandra is stunned and says that this killing is the last straw, but Atticus disagrees with her.

"What was one Negro, more or less, among two hundred of 'em?  He wasn't Tom to them, he was an escaping prisoner." (pg 235)

Tom was shot by prison guards while he was awaiting an appeal of his conviction and while he was trying to escape from jail.

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